By Malthe Ibsen Sørensen & Lisbeth Trinskjær
“Then I might as well go out and shoot myself,” said Morten’s father on the phone. Morten’s crime was that he wouldn’t work a shift on his day off. Since his parents’ divorce, he had lived alone with his father and worked in his father’s bar in Western Jutland. Morten had originally taken an apprenticeship as a mechanic and later as an event technician, but every time he had lost his nerve at some point and felt that “it was easier to simply work a little for Dad.”
When Morten says “a little”, it means working 60 hours a week. It had been like that since he was 17 years old. Even when he was off work or at a party with his friends or even on New Year’s Eve, his father would call him and demand that he came to work. Otherwise his father would threaten to kill himself.
Morten’s father was good at making his son feel indispensable at work. Good at making him feel that he did a good job. And if Morten began to talk about finding another job, his father would answer that he “was too obese to be able to handle a real working life”.
On the one hand, Morten was indispensable in the bar and really good at his job. On the other hand, nobody but his father would employ him.
Morten had good reason to fear his father’s threats of suicide. One day when Morten was 16, he had been out driving on this scooter. When he came back to the house, he went to the garage and found his dad lying on the floor next to a broken rope. He had tried to hang himself. He was alive, but it was impossible to talk to him. He had been smoking marijuana. Morten called his mother and she called an ambulance. Today, Morten is well aware that his father must have known that he would come and find him.
One day when Morten was 21, he was at work in the bar as usual. During the day he got a headache. Suddenly blood poured out of his nose and he fell over. He was rushed to hospital. His blood pressure was far too high. The doctors said that it was due to overweight and stress. At that time Morten weighed 190 kilograms.
He was signed up for a gastric bypass surgery, i.e. an where the upper part of the stomach is tied up, so that the patient can comsume only small amounts of food at a time. This is a major intervention to go through, surgically as well as in everyday life afterwards. When Morten went to a meeting at the hospital prior to the operation, he noticed the chairs at the ward. They were extra wide and designed for very obese people. Morten decided that he would not end up like that. He skipped the operation and shortly after began to lose weight on his own. Morten managed to lose around 35 kilograms.
A stay at a folk high school
At some point it struck him that he lacked knowledge about nutrition and how to move on. Through his youth-educational supervisor he learned about Ubberup Folk High School. Morten thought it sounded good but was also rather unsure whether this was really something for him. To him, folk high school clearly meant sitting in a circle playing the guitar, and that was not really his style. But the educational supervisor nudged him along and said that he should give it a chance. In the end Morten did go. To the island, as he calls it.
Morten felt increasingly bad and began to think that his body could not go on like this. His first rebellion consisted in staying at the folk high school during the weekends when school parties were held.
At the beginning of the stay, Morten continued to work for his father. He took the trip from Western Zealand to Western Jutland every Friday and during a weekend he could work 37 hours before driving back to the folk high school at three o’clock on Monday morning. Mondays were then mostly spent sleeping.
Morten felt increasingly bad and began to think that his body could not go on like this. His first rebellion consisted in staying at the folk high school during the weekends when school parties were held. But his father called him again and again telling him to come home and get to work.
Rebellion against the father
Morten began to feel something he had never felt before. He got annoyed and felt cheated when he was home for work. For the first time he asked himself the question “Why does it have to be me every time?” Through short chats and longer conversations with some of the teachers at the school, Morten slowly realized that his father was manipulating him. At the same time, he began to form a concrete plan for the future.
Morten now began to resist. When his father called to make him come and work in the bar, Morten refused. He stayed at the school at the weekends and told his old man that he was not coming home. One day his father called and said that he was driving to the Netherlands to buy drugs because the financial situation was crumbling when Morten was not around to help. Morten chose to ignore this.
Morten’s father had more cards up his sleeve, however. First Morten received text messages such as: “Goodbye! I am never coming back”. One evening his father called and wanted Morten to go to work, and asked his son:
“How can you live with yourself? You cannot just bail on your promises. You cannot let us down just because you want to stay up there on a holiday.”
Morten's father asked Morten
Shortly after Morten saw on Facebook that his dad had closed the bar. Morten’s family, the customers and the employees from the bar began to call Morten incessantly. Morten answered that he had no plans to come home and that this was not his problem. Then he received a text message from his father: “It will be an open question whether I’m here when you return.” Morten made a decision. He would not surrender. If he gave in now, it would mean that he would be right back where he started. That was a hard weekend. The next day, Morten’s father opened the bar again.
When Morten attended a staff meeting on the following Sunday, there was a woman present that he had never seen before. She was his replacement. Morten’s father had replaced him without letting him know. In fact, Morten thought this was great. He was relieved.
Roughly a month later Morten has made his final decision. He will go home and settle accounts with his dad. As Morten drove across the country, he was a bundle of nerves. He had dreamt that his father would shoot him when he told him what he had in mind.
When Morten came home to Western Jutland, his father immediately sensed that something was wrong. Morten confronted him.
“We are not the best of friends. We should not work together. We should just be father and son. If you cannot accept this, we should stop talking altogether.”
Morten, 23-year-old student at Ubberup Folk High School.
Morten’s father just looked at him. He had not expected this to happen. Morten continued: “I want to go to Svendborg. Don’t expect me to live at home anymore. I want to be a shipmaster.”
Contrary to what Morten had expected, his father did not react with threats or aggression. In fact, he behaved very well. He said that Morten could always come back if he should change his mind. “Don’t expect that”, Morten answered. He had never been as relieved as when he drove away from Jutland and back towards the school.
Empowerment or brainwash
Morten’s story is dramatic. Unusually dramatic. But we know all too well the pattern of the social control that he has been subjected to. And we know how hard it is to break with that control.
It is by no means the majority of students at Ubberup Folk High School who have been subjected to this kind of systematic social control, but there is a majority of students who need to listen better to what they want to do in life. The noise, however, may come from very different sources. From family, friends, organisations or authority figures of great significance for the students. So, it is not hard to understand how pleasing others can come to mean more than one’s own interests or preferences. As was the case with Morten, it is quite possible to get so used to this pattern that you do not even see it anymore. Unfortunately, that is not uncommon.
“Say, did they brainwash you at that folk high school?” is a question we experience students being asked when they try to part with an ingrown pattern. And we know that in fact some students doubt their answer it for a second;
“Is this brainwash? Or is it my own voice that I can now finally hear?”
We are not without an agenda. We do have a mission concerning the students. We want to strengthen their ability to take charge of their own lives. Simply because this is at the core of the folk high school’s raison d’être. Commanding a certain personal authority as a human being and being able to take charge of one’s own life is always a key priority for us in our interaction with our students.
Our students will often point to the support and trust we show them as crucial. In concrete terms, in our pedagogical endeavours within the classroom and outside it, we must be good at listening, asking good questions, breaking habitual thinking, and reminding the students of their own words and ambitions. This requires that we are good at seeing the human behind the action, also when that human destroys things for themselves and for others.
Morten had an educational supervisor who identified Morten’s challenge. He knew that Morten had to move to another part of the country, if he were to have a chance at breaking his father’s social control. The supervisor helped Morten take that chance.
One could wish for the Mortens of this world – those who need to hear their own voice louder and more clearly – that they all get this opportunity. It does not always work out like that, even if the possibility is there. But in many cases, it does. At Ubberup Folk High School we have students who go through similar processes much later in life than Morten did. They often regret not having taken action earlier.
Competent, self-assured citizens are a requirement for any true democracy. Fulfilling that requirement is a crucial part of the folk high schools’ task.
This story is based on interviews with a 23-year-old student at Ubberup Folk High School. Morten is not his real name.